When women massively become political the revolution has moved to a new stage.
'Wathin't a bafazi, way ithint'imbolodo uzo kufa'
(Now you have touched the women (Strydom), you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed).
a Freedom Song sung by South African women protesting against the extension of Pass Laws to African women, 9 August 1956.
The Historical Roots of Oppression
The unprecedented militancy demonstrated by South African women during the 1950s advanced the liberation struggle significantly. However, to speak generally of South African women is to obscure the real importance of these bitter struggles. It is the African women in particular - those who suffer from both national and sexual oppression - who sacrificed most in the struggle against the South African state's definition of them as 'superfluous appendages' of African male workers.
African women workers have had a specific role to play. Exploited as workers, oppressed as Africans, they bear the additional burden of sexual inequalities. In South Africa, women provide another source of readily available cheap Black labour so necessary for the system to survive. Yet these women, whose consciousness has spanned several dimensions of oppression, played a crucial role in the advancement of the working class struggle spearheaded by SACTU.
Similarly, African women played a leading role in the general political struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Specific campaigns led by the women were those, which attacked the basis of their particular oppression. In their campaigns against the extension of pass laws to African women, against the government-sponsored beer halls and their attacks on the dipping tanks in the rural areas, the women represented a strong, united force to be reckoned with. Their strength and determination inspired the men who fought alongside them and they advanced the liberation struggle considerably during this period. The origins of the oppression of African women in South Africa are similar to those, which characterized all colonised nations during the plunder of previous centuries. Expropriation of tribal lands, slavery, forced labour, destruction of indigenous culture - these were the effects of the onslaught of colonialism on the people of Africa and elsewhere. Two aspects combined to define the particular form of oppression suffered by women in these societies: the destruction of traditional social structures, which had given status to both sexes, and the sexual exploitation of African women by the White colonisers. They became a, colony within a colony'.
In South Africa, the Apartheid state has ensured the continuation of a system in which African women are oppressed on the basis of their skin colour and their sex. Through the system of migrant labour, the pass laws and other special laws affecting African women, the regime has created a particularly unique form of oppression, distinguishing it from other forms of female oppression within capitalist societies. In South Africa women are stripped of all those rights considered basic human rights throughout the world - the right to choose where to live and work, the right to live with their partners and husbands, the right to bring up and care for their own children.
Apartheid Laws and African Women
The most devastating laws affecting African women are those, which ensure the maintenance of the migrant, labour system. Robbed of their productive lands, burdened with numerous taxes, African men have been forced to sell their labour-power on the farms, in the mines and in the factories of 'White' South Africa. Their wives and children are, superfluous appendages' left to live in the barren and desolate Bantustans, termed 'homelands' by the Apartheid regime.
The men and women who work in the cities are illegal immigrants in their own country - 'labour units' to be defined as productive or nonproductive. Even those who have spent all of their working lives in the townships surrounding the White cities are treated as 'temporary sojourners'. More and more people are being forcibly removed from their dwelling places in the towns and cast out to the barren reserves as all African workers are being turned into migrant labourers.
Women serving no purpose for the White economy are discarded, unable to live with their husbands except perhaps during the annual two-week holiday allowed migrant workers. They fight for survival in the barren reserves, eking out a miserable existence from what little land is available, supplemented only by the meagre earnings sent by their husbands. Kwashiorkor and other diseases associated with malnutrition are widespread and death from starvation, particularly among children, is common in the reserves.
Insofar as capitalism always seeks the highest rate of profit, it is in the interests of the South African ruling class to keep the Apartheid system intact and refine the migrant labour policy accordingly. By shifting the burden of the maintenance of the workers' families onto the backs of African women in the reserves, the reaping of super-profits is guaranteed. Employers can then justify the below-subsistence wages paid to African workers by arguing that they are partially supported from subsistence farming in the 'homelands'. In reality, poverty and disease are rampant in the reserves and a stable family unit is an impossibility.
The pass laws have been described as the 'African worker's handcuffs'. BY controlling the movement of the African labour force, they prevent Africans from selling their labour freely. All Africans over the age of sixteen are forced to carry these 'passes' which prove they are employed, that they have a permit to live in the city where they work and that they have permits to seek work. Failure to produce these on demand renders the African workers liable to summary arrest and conviction.
Passes for women were not introduced until the mid- 1950s. When the announcement was made, South African women launched a massive campaign against passes, realising what the consequences would be. They had seen their men harassed and arrested, fined, imprisoned and deported to White farms as forced labour - all as a result of their failure to produce passes on demand. They had suffered through the pass raids and the disappearance of their husbands and sons and knew what this would mean if they too had to carry passes. The women's resistance campaign is documented in a later section of this chapter.
What has been described so far are the effects on African women of laws which apply to both men and women. But what of those laws which oppress women solely on the basis of their sex? To maintain its subjugation of women in the Bantustans, the Apartheid regime has devised a special interpretation of the customary life and laws of traditional African society, an interpretation which is an insult to the heritage of the African people. These laws have been distorted and applied by alien White courts and do not reflect the true position of women in traditional, pre-colonial society. Under what is now termed African customary law, unless an African woman has been 'emancipated', she is deemed a perpetual minor, always under the guardianship of a man (firstly her father and when she marries, her husband). Only unmarried women, widows or divorcees can apply for 'emancipation' to a Native Commissioner's Court, which takes into account the woman's 'character', education, other abilities and whether she owns immovable property. If granted emancipation, the woman becomes free of her guardian's control. As it stands, however, women cannot own property in their own right, claim inheritance, or act as guardians of their children. They cannot enter into contracts, sue or be sued without the aid of their male guardians.
Regardless of their age and marital status, African women are always subject to the authority of men. The government dares not make significant changes in these laws for fear of greater independence and militancy of African women. The system is designed to ensure a largely docile, subservient reserve army of labour to be brought into capitalist production when it is needed, discarded when not.
Indian and Coloured women also suffer oppression based on skin colour and sex. The position of White women corresponds with that of women in most other male-dominated societies. They endure inequalities in employment, wages and in law but at the same time enjoy other advantages merely because they are White in South Africa; for example, White women have the vote. Coloured and Indian women on the other hand, are discriminated against in the sphere of education, housing, employment, wages and health. Laws which have had detrimental effects on their family lives are those such as the Group Areas Act which has legislated the forced removal of Black families to townships based on racial grouping, leaving the inner-city areas as 'White areas'.
Black South African women suffer oppression at the hands of the Apartheid state, which differs in degree and in kind from that of their male counterparts. In spite of this and in spite of the attempts to divide women by racial categories, South African women have consistently stood up and confronted the state in unity. No better example can be provided than the women's campaigns of the 1950s. Their struggles illustrate the spontaneous militancy, which emerged and once directed, proved to be a significant threat to both employers and the state.
Women Rise Up Against the State
Women's resistance campaigns are not a recent phenomenon in South Africa. As far back as 1913 in the Orange Free State, African women in urban locations organised demonstrations against being forced to buy new residence permits each month. Demonstrations spread throughout the province and the campaign continued for years, eventually leading to the withdrawal of these permits. Similarly in 1918, the newly-formed Bantu Women's League of South Africa launched a series of anti-pass campaigns which raised the political consciousness of African women. In later years, Indian women organised mass campaigns and strikes against the taxes they had to pay. These women, brought to South Africa as indentured labourers, recognized that they were a source of cheap labour on the colonial plantations and fought against these slave conditions. Coloured women too, continually resisted attempts by the successive racist regimes to use them as pawns in the implementation of segregation policies. The African National Congress Women's League (ANCWL) had for many years been organising women for the national liberation struggle. These women also performed a more traditional function, that of providing food and accommodation for ANC conferences and meetings.
It was not until April 1954, when the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) was born, that women of all races united to carry on the struggle against racial and sexual discrimination. At the founding conference, 146 women delegates representing 230,500 women from all over South Africa gathered in Johannesburg, 'to discuss how to win social, economic and political rights, and how to make a greater contribution in the struggle to win freedom for all of the people of South Africa'. Many women who were later to become SACTU leaders attended this historic conference. Veteran trade unionist Ray Alexander praised the past efforts of women in her speech: We are here because we want to find solutions to the problems which mean so much to us and to those we represent. Our women have shown their worth in building the A.N.C., trade unions, in strikes and demonstrations. They have played an important part in the Defiance Campaign - our women defied the unjust laws and went to jail. Many were expectant mothers, while others had babies on their backs.
In 1955, the Minister of Native Affairs announced that African women were to be issued with passes beginning in January 1956. This was the impetus for the major women's campaign of the 1950s - the Anti-Pass Campaign. The first major protest against the pass laws occurred in October 1955, when 2,000 women, mostly Africans, converged in Pretoria to voice their opposition and to present their signed protests. Lilian Ngoyi, garment worker and President of FSAW, explained the militancy of the women to their men, who were in most cases shocked by this well-coordinated and bold stand: 'Men are born into the system and it is as if it has become a life tradition that they carry passes. We as women have seen the treatment our men have - when they leave home in the morning you are not sure if they will come back. If the husband is to be arrested, and the mother, what about the child?
The campaign intensified in 1956 when the government began issuing passes to sections of women least likely to protest - women farm workers in particular. Protests grew throughout the country and in many towns women gathered together to burn their passes, their 'badges of slavery'. The campaign, spearheaded by the FSAW with assistance from the ANC Women's League and SACTU, steadily gained momentum during 1956 and culminated in a mass demonstration in Pretoria on 9 August 1956, the date now designated as South African Women's Day. On that day in 1956, women poured into Pretoria and Johannesburg from all over South Africa by train, bus and car. Port Elizabeth women had raised £700, enough for 70 women to attend. On this day some 20,000 women assembled in Pretoria, all heading for the Union Buildings to present their protest to the Prime Minister himself, Johannes Strydom. The women sang, 'Strydom you have struck a rock, you have touched the women' as the four leaders (Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Sophie Williams and Helen Joseph) representing each 'racial' group, marched up to the Office of the Prime Minister where they left thousands of petition forms at the door. After 30 minutes of complete silence, the women sang freedom songs and then dispersed, walking away from one of the most incredibly organised and fantastic demonstrations in the history of women's struggles in South Africa.
Despite this tremendous opposition, passes for women were introduced and as predicted brought increased suffering to Africans. However, this did not mean an end to women's protests as they continued to organise against the pass laws throughout the country.
Thousands of women took part in massive rallies, processions and demonstrations in Johannesburg during 1958. Zeerust, in the Western Transvaal, was the centre of the most bitter struggle. In one village, only 76 out of 4,000 women accepted pass books, many burning them as an expression of defiance. The women's anger was directed not only against the state, but also against any chiefs who collaborated with the South African regime. Some bloody incidents occurred during these acts of resistance and many women were beaten, shot, their houses burned and some forced into banishment.
Elsewhere throughout the country groups of women continued to resist the pass system by refusing to accept reference books. In every centre, women members of SACTU actively campaigned against passes, calling on women workers to defy these oppressive laws. Throughout this period countless women were arrested, detained and beaten, but this repression did not stop the women.
Natal Erupts: Protests Against Beer-Halls and Dipping Tanks
Uprisings led by the women spread throughout Natal during 1959 and 1960. The major protests emanated from the Cato Manor shack settlement, where African residents lived in extreme poverty. Their homes had no lighting or sewerage provided and families were subjected to constant raids by police. The women's resentment focussed on the system of municipal beer-halls.
The law prevented Africans from brewing their own liquor at home and yet allowed men to go to municipal beer-halls to drink the 'Bantu Beer' provided there. These beer-halls were a source of tax revenue to assist in the administration of Apartheid machinery. African women continued to defy the law, brewing liquor at home to sell in order to earn a few pennies more and retain a traditional form of hospitality. Because of the already meagre wages their men brought home, the women deeply resented the money they drank away in the beer-halls. They argued that the beer-halls should be closed and that they should be allowed to brew at home. Police raids intensified as the women's anger built up.
On 18 June 1959, some 2,000 Cato Manor women gathered to tell their grievances to a local official. The response they received was vicious: hundreds of women and children struck down by police wielding batons. The township erupted and violence spread. Municipal buildings were burned down and vehicles were destroyed. Three Africans were shot and killed as they tried to burn down a beer-hall. ANC leaders called on the people to be non-violent and appealed for peace, but the disturbances spread. This incident provided the impetus for an unprecedented movement which spread throughout the city and countryside.
The militant women of Natal called for a total boycott of the beerhalls. Leaders like Dorothy Nyembe, Florence Mkhize and Gladys Manzi inspired the women who carried out an intensive campaign of picketing the beer-halls in a number of municipalities. There were huge demonstrations and women marched right into the beer-halls, attacking the men who dared to come and drink there, and destroying the object of their oppression - the beer-hall itself. Stephen Dlamini recalls how effective their campaign was: 'In the evenings when beer-halls were normally 100 per cent full, only a handful were there and it was suspected that even some of these may have been police spies. But the ordinary rank and file workers never went in.
When men in the beer-halls saw the women coming, they fled immediately. The police were always there. They tried to prevent the women from entering, but they were usually outsmarted. Mate Mfusi observed one such incident:
These women were very powerful. Some came half dressed (in traditional dress) with their breasts exposed, and when they got near this place the Blackjacks (police) tried to block the women. But when they saw this, the women turned and pulled up their skirts. The police closed their eyes and the women passed by and went in! Elias Mbele recalls a time 'when the women took off their panties, filled them with beer and said, "Look, this is what happens," as they squeezed them out'.
At first the men were shocked by the actions of the women; chauvinist attitudes were revealed as they witnessed their women attacking a symbol of their domain. However, they did not retaliate or fight back and once they saw police attacking the women viciously, they fully supported the women in their struggle. ANC and SACTU men gave their support to the women and the youth in particular backed them up, often coming back to the beer-halls the following week to finish off the job. Many beer-halls were closed but police action intensified against illegal brewing. As a result, many leaders were jailed and women severely beaten.
In all of the various acts of resistance, the unifying current was the women's hatred of the dreaded pass laws and influx control and their effect on family life, both in the urban townships and in the rural areas. When the uprising spread to the rural areas, women attacked yet another edifice of their particular oppression - the dipping tanks. Women were forced to fill and maintain these dipping tanks for cattle without payment. They reacted against this form of exploitation by burning and destroying the dipping tanks. The protests spread throughout Natal and three-quarters of the tanks were destroyed. In one village, police arrested the entire crowd of demonstrators, nearly 400 women, and they were given the option of a fine of £35 or four months' imprisonment. They all chose prison, many taking their babies with them to the jails.
Despite police beatings, arrests and imprisonments, the spirits of the women in Natal remained high. At the December 1959 Conference of the ANC in Durban, as Govan Mbeki spoke from the chair, the women were rushing at the door and yelling, 'We must go out and defy...!' Mbeki said, 'Bavulele Mabangeni!' (Open the doors for them). That year also, the men made a special bright red banner for the Conference which read, 'Makabongwe Amakosikazi '(We Thank the Women).
Violence erupted again in Cato Manor early in 1960. The people still lived in appalling slum conditions and police raids had intensified. One African policeman, Dludla, was notorious for his treatment of residents. Determined never to walk away from a house-raid without an arrest, Dludla would always carry a spare bottle of illicit spirits in his pocket and conveniently place it under a pillow or elsewhere in order to ensure his quota of victims. He often said, 'I'll ask for your passes here and in heaven too!'
A series of events occurred which further added to the build-up of hatred for police actions in Cato Manor, by now a nest of seething uneasiness. At one weekend demonstration police shot a baby on the mother's back and this proved too much for the people to take. Shortly thereafter the masses retaliated, killing nine police (including Dludla) and the ANC declared that this kind of occurrence was a result of the degrading conditions and vicious police harassment of residents. The upsurge of women's protests in 1959 posed some vital questions for the ANC leadership at the time. Firstly, the women's actions -especially in the rural areas - were unexpected even by their male counterparts in the organisation. Moses Mabhida has made some interesting comments on the situation at the time. For instance, the fact that women had to take the stand they did, without their men knowing, indicated to him that perhaps the leadership of the ANC did not understand very well the problems of the people. 'The fact also may be that because of African attitudes, the society didn't expect women to participate in the way that they did.'
Another interesting question, which emerged from this campaign, was the apparent readiness of the people to take up arms against the Apartheid state. Certainly many of the women, and many rank and file members of the ANC, thought that the time had come for an armed uprising. Among the leadership though, there were those who feared that the situation would become uncontrollable. Reflecting on this situation, Mabhida had this to say: When the women demonstrated, I think it was one of the most powerful demonstrations. Unfortunately for our people, we didn't realise the extent of the organisation of the people, which was at that time very high, and the women formed a very strong nucleus for a powerful organisation. If 1 may say, if our people had taken it further, it might have taken the same trend as it did in Iran - maybe not exactly the same, but the extent of organisation and the militancy of the people was almost the same.
A prominent woman member on the Natal ANC Executive kept asking the others, 'How long shall we go on with these demonstrations which are one-sided in the sense that the police assault our people, and in all ways we ask them not to retaliate?' It was a question which was to be posed over and over again in the next few years and one which was resolved to some extent by the decision of the ANC in 1961 to turn to armed struggle.
SACTU and Women's Struggles
Throughout the years, SACTU has consistently recognized that women, and particularly African women, suffer an additional form of oppression and therefore have a distinct role to play in the political and trade union struggles in South Africa. Their support for the struggle of women was part of the commitment to the general struggle for complete emancipation of the people of South Africa and a commitment to build a South Africa free from oppression on the basis of race, class or sex. As SACTU stated in a letter of fraternal greetings to the Transvaal Provincial Conference of the Women's Federation in November 1956, It is the women of South Africa who have demonstrated to all progressive forces the true meaning of militancy and organisation and we in the trade union movement are determined to follow your courageous example.
The campaign against Pass Laws is 'basic to the struggle for freedom'. As you fight laws for women, we fight them for workers.
Let us not rest until the absolute value of every individual is recognized and all oppressive legislation defeated.
Year after year SACTU joined with all other progressive forces to condemn the pass laws, and particularly their extension to African women. At its first Annual National Conference in March 1956, held in Cape Town, Frances Baard led a lengthy discussion on the effect on women of the pass laws.' Once women accept the passes,' she said,' they will be jailed every day.' Resolutions condemning the pass laws were approved at every conference and May Day pledges always included a call to continue the fight against them. Local committees in each area were called upon to unite with the women in their struggle and take action relevant to the local situation.
During 1958 and 1959, when employers were making the possession of passes a condition of women's employment, SACTU considered it necessary to take effective counter-action. In this case, SACTU was defending their rights both as workers and as women. The SACTU 1959 Conference Report stated that SACTU had contacted the Chamber of Industry and Commerce requesting they intervene because African women opposed pass laws and in the interests of harmonious labour relations the Chambers should bring pressure on the government. Their request was refused. SACTU later wired the Associated Chambers of Commerce meeting in Margate, asking them to oppose the issuance of reference books to African women. The reply: 'Your telegram acknowledged. Questions of this nature entirely outside scope of our Industry and no comment can be made. This response was then strongly attacked by SACTU in a press release and SACTU decided to approach employers directly.
In October 1958 a circular went out to 400 employers of African women. In it, SACTU stated that there was no legal compulsion for employers to register African women, nor for them to take out reference books.'The Pass system,'the circular pointed out,' is the greatest cause of unrest and dissatisfaction among African men. With the extension of this system to African women, this unrest and dissatisfaction will be increased 1,000-fold.'
Within the trade union movement, SACTU alone campaigned against passes for women. In November 1958 they appealed to the SATUC to join SACTU in a deputation to the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and the Federated Chambers of Industry, stating that the issue of passes to women was a violation of their rights as workers for freedom of movement and association, and of their right to sell their labour freely. Once again, the TUC betrayed the interests of the majority of African workers and sent no reply to SACTU. The 1958 SACTU Conference labelled the whole Pass System as basically anti-worker and anti-trade union. Referring specifically to the case of African women, Conference recognized that the women's struggle against passes was the concern of all workers and called on all affiliated unions, local committees and the trade union movement as a whole to support the women's campaign without qualification. Though as we know the campaign did not result in the abolition of passes, it contributed greatly to the politicization of the African working class and to the mobilization of the masses throughout the country in the late 1950s. At the 1960 SACTU Conference, congratulations were extended to the African population in their fight against the pass laws, 'the very basis of cheap labour in South Africa, and the instrument the capitalist class to preserve wage slavery'.
The Effect of the Natal Uprisings
The militancy demonstrated by the women in Natal in 1959 had a profound impact on SACTU as well as activists in the political movement. One delegate at the 1960 SACTU Conference stressed the importance of SACTU linking up with the struggles of peasants and in particular the women. He felt that SACTU had 'missed the boat in this recent situation, that old methods had to be discarded and that it was important to know and feel the pulse of the people'.
In Natal itself, the SACTU Local Committees was already active in tapping this upsurge of militancy in its campaign to double the SACTU Natal membership and build up 100 new factory committees. Billy Nair, Secretary, explained:
The 1959 demonstrations in Natal and the tremendous advances in the trade union field must be exploited to the full. SACTU is aware that it has a decisive role to play in advancing the struggle not only for higher wages and better working conditions but also for freedom for all in South Africa.
Over 10,000 members joined SACTU during the great political upsurge in Natal last year. Our task in the coming months is to consolidate this force and to increase our membership and influence amongst the working people of Natal.
The 1959 campaigns by peasant women and the women's campaigns in general, did influence SACTU to devote greater attention to organising workers and peasants in the rural areas and to promote greater unity among the oppressed people of Natal generally. This became even more crucial after the banning of the ANC in April 1960. A Natal Rural Areas Committee was formed and together with SACTU called several 'Workers and Peasants' Conferences'. Women played a leading part in these and other conferences. At one meeting in December 1962 , attended by 1,500 people, the women's leaders Gladys Manzi and Dorothy Nyembe (Secretary and Chairman of the FSAW, Natal, respectively) were the principal speakers. On other occasions, speakers included Vera Pormen, President of the Federation in Natal, and member of the SACOD before her banning in April 1962, and Fatima Meer of the Natal Indian Congress. Natal thus became a vital area of SACTU organising in the early 1960s before the period of heavy repression directed against its leaders and members.
Other SACTU campaigns which focussed on women's issues specifically included one against the introduction of taxes for African women, and another calling for equal compensation for African and White widows following the death of 435 miners at Clydesdale Colliery in January 1960. At the 1959 Conference, a FCWU delegate described the introduction of taxes for women as a 'terrible blow' and appealed for unity, stressing that the 'men must help the women; it is their struggle too!' African women earning between £ 15 and £20 per month now had to pay £ 1 per year tax and an extra £ 1 per year for every £5 above a wage of £20 a month. The poll tax for African men earning between £ 15 and £20 a month was raised to £2. These represented large amounts to Black workers and their families, barely existing on their starvation wages.
The discrepancy between compensation offered African and White widows of the Clydesdale victims was outrageous. A White widow would receive a lump sum of £75 for immediate expenses and £40 for medical expenses, a pension of £ 13 1Is. 4d. a month with an extra £6 15s. 8d. a month for each child (up to three children), and on remarriage, two years pension in a lump sum with children's allowances up to the age of seventeen. African dependants were to receive one lump sum payment of approximately £ 180, nothing more. The inhumanity displayed by the mining company, which more than a month after the disaster could still not provide a full list of African miners killed, shocked the world. SACTU took on the responsibility of arranging for a memorial service and launching a fund to assist the African dependants. The campaign for equal compensation fell on deaf ears, and African miners' widows were left destitute.
In sum, SACTU welcomed the campaigns undertaken by women in the late 1950s and pledged political and material support for their militant actions. The organisation recognized the oppression of women as being of a specific kind distinct from that based on class and race alone. But it is the women within SACTU, women who experienced this particular form of oppression directly, who had the least to lose and who contributed a great deal to the struggle for non-racial trade unionism.
Women Workers and SACTU
Because of the practical issues of our society, the differences between men and women died a natural death ... a worker is a worker whether Black, White, man or woman.
Certainly the 'practical issues' confronting both men and women workers demanded a special kind of unity in their fight against employers and the state. Under Apartheid, class and racial divisions are fostered to a much greater extent than divisions between the sexes. However, the fact remains that African women workers are at the bottom of the scale in terms of wages, rights of residence in the towns, working conditions and other basic rights.
From the beginning, SACTU recognized the vulnerability of African women workers to super-exploitation by the bosses:
It must be the task of the entire trade union movement to lend a helping hand to organise all women in the industry, especially African women, so they can take their rightful place in the trade union movement of South Africa and make an end of the system which uses women as the source of cheap labour.... The key is organisation . Only when women in the trade union movement are well organised with men, can it be a truly representative trade union movement. We call upon all trade unionists to encourage women workers in their place of work to become active members of their unions and play a part in strengthening the trade union movement in this country and taking up the great issues of an end to the inferior position of women in the industries and trades, and for equal pay for equal work.
In one sense, however, African women workers had one less obstacle compared with African men at the time SACTU was formed. The IC Act of 1924 included in the definition of 'employees' all those who were not 'pass-bearing natives' (Africans). This meant that African women workers were not excluded from forming trade unions and being part of registered unions (until passes for women were introduced). The state was perhaps unaware of the potential militancy of African women when the first IC Act was passed. Hence, until women were forced to carry passes, they were able to take an active role in the formation of trade unions and participate in strikes. Many African women rejected any tendencies toward passivity in the labour movement and gained invaluable experience during this period.
The standard occupation for African women who came to the city for work was in domestic service in the homes of White South Africans. The work itself was largely an extension of the traditional concept of a, Woman's role' - cooking, cleaning, laundering and child-care. Housed in tiny servants' quarters behind the White homes, these women were constantly at the beck and call of their employers and consequently endured severe restrictions on their own personal lives and freedom of movement. They worked long hours for poverty wages and were separated from their families and children except for brief vacation periods. It was common for employers to deduct a certain portion from their already dismal wages if any breakages or damages occurred. This form of employment remains a glaring example of the superexploitation of cheap Black labour in South Africa.
With the tremendous upsurge in industrialization during and after the Second World War, more and more African workers, including women, were drawn into the labour force. Women workers were increasingly employed in food processing and canning, textile and garment manufacturing and laundering, with a smaller number entering teaching and nursing. Even up to the present time, however, the majority of women workers are still employed in either domestic service or farm labour. African women have been excluded from a large range of jobs and are thus subject to double discrimination on the basis of skin colour and sex.
Throughout the years of SACTU's open activity women played a major part in the struggle for a better quality of life for South African workers, and in particular for the oppressed African workers. Side by side with the SACTU men, African, Coloured, Indian and to a lesser extent White women actively participated in the organising campaigns, the local committees, Head Office work and of course the numerous strikes by workers - especially in the textile and food processing industries. African women, again like their male co-workers, continued to defy the legislation, which prohibited them from taking part in strikes. Nothing could deter these women from playing an active part in the progressive trade union movement. By taking the stand they did, they were rejecting the role normally extended to them and instead standing up to the employers and the state in their struggle against oppression as Africans, as workers and as women.
Militant Women Workers Play Their Part
At one time 1 was invited to attend an international conference for women trade unionists on behalf of SACTU. But when 1 began to talk of the militancy of African women trade unionists in South Africa, 1 was not believed! ... It is a story, which must be told.
In August 1961 twelve African nurses were severely caned by the matron of the nurses' home at King George Tuberculosis Hospital in Durban. This incident sparked off a historic strike, which demonstrated very clearly the kinds of issues facing African women workers and the steps they were prepared to take in order to achieve their demands. SACTU had assisted in forming a Hospital Workers Union in Durban in 1959, a Union for all hospital workers whether doing skilled or unskilled work, whether men or women. Before this incident however, the Union could not operate openly at the hospital for fear of victimisation.
The matron who had caned the twelve women, allegedly for arriving to classes a few minutes late, had a past history of cruel treatment and contemptuous attitudes towards the African women working in the hospital. Her previous employment had been in the penal system, a fact which might partially explain her actions. Immediately following the caning incident, all of the African nurses marched to the Superintendent's Office demanding that this matron, Mrs Malan, be fired for her actions. Informed that the Superintendent was not available, they spread the word that all work must stop and the workers must take a united stand against this tyrannical administration. Within minutes, sweepers, staff nurses, clerks and technical assistants -Indians, Africans, men and women -joined the striking nurses.
After the initial walk-out, women leaders such as Mate Mfusi, Queeneth Diadla and Doris Mnyandu, assisted by SACTU-Durban Local Committee members, drew up a memorandum to present to the hospital authorities. The list of grievances was extensive. African nurses were forced to eat apart from Coloured and Indian nurses and were fed lower quality meals; African staff nurses were forced to pay more for board and lodging; Africans had to supply their own eating utensils. The workers were demanding changes in all of these areas. Their demands also included free uniforms, a minimum wage of R3 a day (for seniors), R2 for nurse aids, maids and labourers, and the establishment of an Unemployment Insurance Fund. One of the most crucial demands for the African nurses was that the right to maternity leave be extended to unmarried pregnant women. The nurses had seen too many of their friends buried after submitting themselves to 'backyard abortions' in order to preserve their jobs; these women had considered expulsion from work a worse fate and did not have the choice of a legal abortion.
Another degrading practice which the nurses were determined to put an end to, was that which required African employees to make a cross when collecting their pay envelopes, rather than sign for them. The hospital administration clearly worked on the assumption that all Africans were illiterate but the workers were not prepared to submit to these insults any longer. African nurses, previously offered no protection from TB were also demanding some form of protection from the disease. These and all other demands reflected the workers' anger and bitterness over the inhuman conditions of work and residence in the hospital.
The next day there was another work stoppage by 300 workers at the hospital, while six nurses presented the demands to the Superintendent. After he refused to dismiss the matron or to discuss their demands, the furious nurses began their strike in earnest. The strike continued for two weeks during which time the hospital was cordoned off by police who harassed supportive demonstrators. SACTU leaders Stephen Dlamini, Curnick Ndlovu and Memory Vakalisa assisted the women throughout this period. The nurses had instigated a boycott of the hospital food and so SACTU comrades were active in organising an alternative food programme for the striking women. They approached Indian merchants for donations of sugar, tea and other basic commodities, cooked food at Memory Vakalisa's house and brought in additional tinned foodstuffs for them. SACTU Local Committee Chairman Dlamini was arrested outside the hospital for failing to produce his pass (which he never carried with him), but was later released on bail.
In the end, the women did receive some improvements as a result of the strike. The diet was improved and eating was no longer segregated, unmarried nurses were given maternity leave, Africans could sign for their pay package, uniforms were provided and masks as well. Tablets to guard against TB were distributed and some small wage increases granted. Along with these, however, came reprisals against the Union and twenty-one leaders were dismissed. All nurses were threatened with dismissal if they belonged to the Union.
Not content to let the hospital administration break the Union, some of the nurses thought that they should do something to retaliate. One of them slipped out to get some petrol ... a short time later, a linen room in the nurses' hostel was on fire. Queeneth Dladia and Doris Mnyandu were arrested along with another young woman who later was forced under interrogation to give evidence against the other two. Each received a two-month prison sentence as a result. A major achievement during the strike was the display of unity amongst workers, inspired by the leadership of these militant young African nurses undeterred by the intimidation from the police and hospital authorities. Though they did not succeed in getting the matron dismissed, they did gain some worthwhile improvements for African hospital workers and raised the consciousness of workers in general through their actions.
Once again, SACTU received assistance from the international working class after publicizing the threat of the wholesale dismissal of these women workers. Telegrams and letters of protest poured into the Superintendent's Office from the WI`TU, the ICFTU, and workers in Canada, England, the USA, Europe, Latin America, Australia and other countries. This tremendous display of solidarity saved the nurses from massive retrenchments and only the original twenty-one leaders were dismissed. Dr Dorner, the Superintendent at the hospital, was later refused a visa by the Nigerian government to attend a conference of scientists in January 1962.
Some of the nurses involved in the strike later became part of a contingent, which was sent by the ANC to assist in the hospitals of newly independent Tanzania as a gesture of solidarity. The three leaders of the strike all went to work for SACTU as full-time organisers after their dismissal. Mate Mfusi in particular played a major role in SACTU-Natal. work from that time until she left South Africa in 1962. She was instrumental in organising unorganised workers in the Ladysmith area until forced to leave because she didn't have a permit to remain in the area. Remembered as 'a dynamic young SACTU organiser', Mate spoke on many platforms at SACTU meetings in Natal, inspiring all workers to take up the struggle for higher wages and better working conditions. Like many other SACTU leaders, she was harassed by the police and Special Branch until she left South Africa.
Profiles of other SACTU Women
It is our purpose in this section to document the contributions made by some of the women who became working class leaders in South Africa. In doing so, the intention is not to elevate the individual above the collective group of workers, nor is it to illustrate the importance of women leaders vis-a-vis their male comrades. Rather, it is to examine the class origins of these women and to determine how it was that these women rose up out of the confines imposed upon their sex in South Africa to become highly respected, strong leaders of all workers and fighters in the cause of liberation.
Any tribute to women workers who strengthened SACTU through these years would be incomplete without a special mention of the women who belonged to the Food and Canning Workers Union and the African-FCWU. We have already examined some of the strikes in the food and canning industry and the role played by women workers in Chapter 8 above. What follows is a series of sketches of some of the leaders of these women workers as well as other SACTU women who played a crucial part in the development of non-racial trade unionism.
Discussion of the food and canning workers of South Africa immediately brings to mind the name of Ray Alexander, the woman largely responsible for the formation of the Union and for its strength over the years. Ray A lexander was already banned from trade union activity by the time SACTU came into existence. However, even with the restrictions on her open activity, she continued to work behind the scenes, advising, writing, researching and doing whatever possible to assist the workers and leaders of the FCWU and A-FCWU and SACTU.
Born in Latvia of a progressive Jewish family, Ray was active in an illegal Socialist group at the age of fourteen. It was this activity which led her mother to make hasty arrangements to get Ray out of the country on a ship bound for South Africa. Though she considered it the correct tactic politically to try to do political work in a capitalist country like South Africa rather than go to the Soviet Union as many others did (the 'easiest way'), Ray was apprehensive on arrival. Two days after she arrived, as she was out buying vegetables, Ray saw African workers coming out of a factory. She asked,' Are you members of a union?' They said, 'No'. As she passed by a furniture factory she asked a mixed group of workers the same question. Some answered 'Yes', others 'No'. She thought to herself, 'There's a lot of work to be done here!' From the early 1930s onwards, Ray Alexander began organising workers into trade unions throughout the Cape. She played a leading role in the formation of the Commercial Employees Union (forerunner in Cape Town of the National Union of Distributive Workers) and later assisted in organising Black workers into unions in the transport, chemical, sweet, laundry, tin and footwear industries. In late 1940, Ray began organising the Food and Canning Workers Union. By the end of November 194 1, the FCWU was well-organised with branches in Cape Town, Paarl, Daijosophat, Wellington, Worcester, Groot Drakenstein and Stellenbosch. The Union represented all workers in the industry until 1947, when the Department of Labour threatened the Union with deregistration if African workers were not removed. A decision was then taken by the members to set up the African-FCWU, which would continue to work closely as an equal partner with the FCWU.
African workers made up about 15 to 20 per cent of the labour force in the industry at this time, Coloured workers 80 per cent and White workers less than 5 per cent. Of the Coloured workers, 55 per cent were women. With the exception of the White workers who occupied skilled positions, the food and canning workers represented some of the most exploited in the country; their wages were extremely low and they worked long hours, without protective clothing and other benefits. Ray Alexander, along with other leaders in both unions, fought hard for better wages and working conditions for these workers throughout the 1940s and 1950s. They also succeeded in mobilizing workers around broader issues; the food and canning workers were in the forefront of political campaigns initiated by the ANC and other groups in the Congress Alliance.
During this time, Ray was part of the minority in the SAT & LC continually struggling to keep Apartheid out of the trade union movement. In September 1953 she was ordered to resign from her position as General Secretary of the FCWU and prohibited from attending any gatherings of any nature for two years. At the bottom of her banning orders a special sentence, handwritten by the Minister of Justice Swart, added that she must not assist in any way whatsoever any group of workers to improve their wages and working conditions.
Frank Marquard, President of the FCWU at the time spoke out against the banning:
We and our members fully understand that Ray Alexander has been expelled for this life-long devotion to the cause of the oppressed. The men who have done this are the representatives of the rich and employing class. They have for long shown deep-seated hatred and fear of the workers and the oppressed people. Their whole political life has been directed towards maintaining privileges and power for a small class of exploiters.
Nothing that they do - the Swarts, the Schoemans and other enemies of the workers will destroy what Ray Alexander has built up, or uproot her from our hearts. She is ours, and will remain so long after the fascists who are now in power have disappeared from the scene of South African history. The workers, however, were not satisfied with mere words attacking the ruling class; they carried out spontaneous protest strikes throughout the entire Cape Province. Thousands of workers from factories in Paarl, Groot Drakenstein, Worcester, Wellington and Port Elizabeth staged strikes varying from three hours to one day in length, and vowed to continue to fight against these banning orders on their General Secretary. One hundred African women migrants from the Transkei went on strike in an East London factory. They wrote a tribute to Ray, which said, 'By encouraging African workers to organise, you have brought new hope and dignity to thousands of workers. Sobuye Sibonan (We will meet again).
The regime had robbed the workers of one of their most respected leaders. The sense of outrage expressed by the workers at the time of Ray's banning is in itself an indication of the tremendous work carried out by her during the years. Undaunted by the ban on her open activities associated with trade unions, Ray continued to actively assist the workers 'behind the scenes' right up until she was forced to leave South Africa in 1965. Many Black trade unionists owe their training to her and will never forget this disciplined young White woman who delivered lectures and generally assisted them in their work, always exuding tremendous warmth and amazing energy. A further tribute was paid to Ray by the food and canning workers who elected her Life General Secretary of the FC WU in 19 5 7.
One of the most outstanding women trade unionists, who has given her services to the Canning Union since she was a girl of fourteen, has been arbitrarily ordered to abandon her eleven children, her husband, her work and her home, for no other reason than that she has demanded higher wages for her members, the right to skilled jobs and human dignity for all .The news of Elizabeth Mafekeng's banishment order was received with shock throughout progressive circles in South Africa and other parts of the Born in Lesotho (then Basutoland), Elizabeth came to Paarl in 1927 and began working at H. Jones and Co. canning factory in 1939. At that time - before the Union was formed - the workers' wages were 7s. 6d. per week, they worked long hours without overtime pay, they had no sick-leave, no workmen's compensation, no confinement allowance and no protective clothing. Active in the Union from its beginnings in 1941, Elizabeth was later elected President of the A-17CW1J. She became a highly respected leader, able to combine her trade union work with the struggle for women's rights in the Federation of South African Women and for the political rights of oppressed Africans in the ANC. She participated in the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and went to jail carrying her child on her back.
In 1955, Elizabeth was elected to represent South African food workers at an international conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, organised by the WI`TU. Possessing no passport and disguised as a servant, she boarded a ship bound for Europe on 24 June 1955, and as soon as she left South Africa 'tasted for the first time real human treatment with no discrimination whatsoever'. She first attended the International Youth Festival in Warsaw where she was impressed with the rapid reconstruction, which had taken place in Poland since the war.
In Sofia, she represented African workers at the Second International Conference of the Food, Tobacco, Hotel, Café and Restaurant Workers, attended by 122 delegates from 66 countries. The only Black delegate there, Elizabeth spoke on the conditions of African workers in South Africa, the history of the FCWU and A-FCWU and detailed the attempts by the ruling class to divide workers along racial lines, all the time infusing examples from her own experience. The response was overwhelming,'a great uproar ... which lasted for over half an hour ... delegates crowded round me, some shaking hands, some kissing me, assuring us of their hearty support' .She was crowned 'Queen Elizabeth', President of the A-FCWU. From Bulgaria she travelled to China and was surprised to learn that conditions there previous to the Revolution had been worse than in South Africa. The remarkable changes, won through the struggles of the people, were an inspiration for her as she made her way back to South Africa. Of special interest to her were the improved conditions of work for women, particularly child-care facilities for working mothers.
On her return, Elizabeth addressed many meetings of workers, all eager to learn of her experiences overseas. Between 1955 and 1959, she continued to organise African workers into trade unions and represent them as President of the Union. By 1959, she was also National Vice-president of the ANC Women's League, member of the Cape ANC Executive and active in the FSAW.
In October of that year, Elizabeth and Liz Abrahams (Acting General Secretary of the FCWU) went out to Port Elizabeth to assist workers in organising the campaign against proposed wage cuts by Langeberg Kooperasie management. Within weeks, Elizabeth received her banishment orders. She was to be sent to Southey, a Bantu Affairs Department trust farm, 50 miles from the nearest large town and 15 miles from the nearest clinic, with no transport available. No legitimate reason was given for her banishment, only a statement that her presence was 'injurious to the peace, order and good administration [ sic ] of the people of the Paarl district'.
SACTU, the FCWU and the A-FCWU launched a tremendous publicity campaign. Letters and telegrams poured in from everywhere and thousands demonstrated in protest? 28 Elizabeth delivered a farewell message on Sunday, 8 November 1959:
I think everybody is upset today in this country. But 1 personally am not upset about my going, because 1 think that we mothers feel what the pass laws and other oppressive laws mean to us.
We mothers are the people who gave birth to children and we are the people who suffer most from the laws of the Nationalist Government.
We must stand together and unite to fight for freedom.
SACTU demanded the repeal of the banishment order and announced :
From the workers of Paarl, whose parents and grandparents built the canneries into one of the largest industries of its kind in the world, the truth cannot be hidden. The workers know that it is the great farming interests who back the Verwoerd rule who demand Mrs Mafekeng's banishment. It is these same interests which recently secured a ban on canning workers which prevents them from striking for higher wages and has silenced ten Food and Canning Workers' officials. With comradely assistance from her fellow workers, Elizabeth Mafekeng was saved from the fate of banishment and smuggled into Basutoland (Lesotho) a week later, taking only the youngest of her eleven children with her.. Though physically isolated from her comrades in South Africa, she kept in touch with the plight of the South African workers. SACTU continually made appeals to the South African workers for funds to assist her and her family. In May 1961, she sent this message to her fellow-workers regarding the proposed Stay-At Home on 29 May:
Today the Power is in your hands. Through the use of the weapon of your labour power, you will find that nothing can prevent freedom in our lifetime.
She also reminded workers of the Freedom Charter preamble and especially the section dealing with the restoration of the national wealth to the people.
Even in Basutoland, Elizabeth was not free from persecution by the authorities. There were continual threats issued to her by some officials of the Basutoland Congress Party for her involvement in the Basutoland Congress of Trade Unions.
Despite these hardships and the loneliness of life away from her family and fellow workers, Elizabeth remained strong in her belief in the ultimate victory of the workers and people of South Africa in their struggle for freedom and dignity. She stands as a bold example of an African woman worker who defied the subordinate role assigned to her under South African capitalism and Apartheid. Carrying out the struggle on behalf of women workers and the African people, Elizabeth posed a threat to the Apartheid state and therefore had to be silenced. However, just as she herself predicted, other leaders rose to take her place. She remains today in exile in Lesotho, never forgotten by the workers of South Africa whose cause she championed.
'Hier is n 'groot agitator' (Here is a great agitator), an Afrikaner policeman once described Frances Baard as he shoved her into a police van during the Anti-Pass Campaign in Port Elizabeth.
One of the Eastern Cape's many dynamic leaders, Frances played a leading role in the women's movement, the trade union movement and the political struggle. She was a former domestic servant, then a teacher and later became Secretary of the FCWU, Port Elizabeth branch. Until she became Secretary, she was constantly victimized by the canning employers and dismissed from work for her fearless stand in demanding just treatment for the workers.
Frances joined the ANC in 1948, and by 1950 was Secretary of the ANC Women's League in PE. She participated in the Defiance Campaign and played a major role in the Boycott of Bantu Education in 1955. After her arrest in the Treason Trial, Frances sent a message from the dock: 'No matter where you work, unite against low wages. . . unite into an unbreakable solidarity and organisation which is the only protection we can possess against low wages, injustice and oppression.
It was in this militant spirit that Frances Baard carried out her trade union work throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She represented food and canning workers on the PE-SACTU Local Committee and regularly attended SACTU Annual Conferences as their delegate. As well, she was one of the few women members of the SACTU National Executive.
Frances is perhaps best remembered as a women's leader in the Port Elizabeth area. In 1954, she was an inspiring speaker at the founding conference of the FSAW and played a major role in the organisation in the ensuing years. In August 1956, she went to Pretoria with other PE women. But it was in the Eastern Cape itself that the Anti-Pass Campaign took on great importance under her guidance and leadership. Hundreds of African women in the canning industry and woolwasheries were affected by the introduction of passes for women. With the assistance of other women trade unionists such as Sophie Williams of the TWIU, the women of Port Elizabeth launched a massive Anti-Pass Campaign. They organised pickets next to a Reference Books Unit set up by the authorities, dissuading other women who came to get their passes. They staged a demonstration and marched to the Mayor's garden with placards and leaflets. Whatever they could do to resist the imposition of passes, these women attempted it.
Because of her militant stand on behalf of African women and in particular women workers, Frances was persecuted by the Apartheid state, ably assisted by the bosses. In 1962, she was prohibited by the management of Langeberg Kooperasie Besperk from entering their premises, in her view 'an attempt by the bosses to sabotage the activities of the Union'. Detained in 1962 and banned in January of the following year, this was just the beginning of the state's attack on her. On being arrested in 1963, she was kept in solitary confinement for one year before her trial. She then served a five-year prison sentence for contravening the Suppression of Communism Act and was released in 1969. Banishment orders were served soon after, forcing her to leave her family and friends to go and live in an old two-roomed corrugated iron shack in Mabopane in the northern Transvaal, a thousand miles away from her home. Though her banishment order has been lifted, she is over sixty now and finds it difficult to move around. Hence, she remains in Mabopane, unable to pick up the threads of her life in Port Elizabeth again.
Another courageous fighter from amongst the ranks of the food and canning workers, Mabel Balfour gained valuable trade union experience, first as an organiser, then from 1962 as General Secretary of the A-FCWU (Transvaal). She is remembered as an exemplary leader of both African and Coloured workers in the factories.
Because of her experience in the trade union movement, Mabel contributed greatly to SACTU work in the Transvaal. After the loss of many leaders in the Treason Trial arrests, she was co-opted (along with Uriah Maleka, Edmund Cindi, John Gaetsewe and Viola Hashe) onto the Management Committee of SACTU in January 1957. She was also an active member of the Witwatersrand Local Committee.
In 1958, she was arrested in connection with the April Stay-At Home. Several other trade unionists, including Christina Matthews - another militant SACTU and FCWU leader -were among the twenty arrested and convicted for 'inciting non-white workers on the Rand' in the weeks leading up to the general strike. Her sentence, £20 or thirty days' hard labour, was later suspended.
Mabel continued to fight for higher wages and better working conditions within SACTU and the A-17CWU until she too was the victim of state repression. In 1963, she was banned and confined to a small house in the Roodepoort area.
After the successive bannings of Ray Alexander and Becky Lan, Elizabeth ('Liz') Abrahams was elected Acting General Secretary of the FCWU. She continued in this position throughout the SACTU years and ably represented all workers in the industry during that time.
Throughout her life,'Auntie Mary' of Benoni was one of South Africa's most valiant fighters and a constant menace to the Apartheid regime. Active in the South African Women's Federation and the Coloured People's Congress, Mary also organised workers into the Food and Canning Workers Union in the East Rand in the 1950s. She served on the Witwatersrand Local Committee of SACTU during these years and was responsible for training many younger trade unionists in the tradition of militant opposition to oppression and exploitation.
Mary Moodley's home in the 'Coloured' area of Wattville Township housed not only her own large family and grandchildren but also anyone else who suffered homelessness under the Apartheid system. For example, she adopted a blind and paralysed African man whom she had found lying in the street and for whom no hospital or state institution existed. During the heavy repression of the early 1960s, Mary was instrumental in assisting many Congress Alliance members to flee the country.
Although she suffered from a weak heart, the state unrelentlessly pursued its attack on Mary. She was subjected to the 'statue torture' for 90 days in 1963, the same year in which she was banned from trade union and political activity, from attending meetings, and was confined to the magisterial district in which she lived. For the next sixteen years, she had only three days in which she was 'free' from Apartheid restrictions. Despite the regime's attempt to turn Mary Moodley into a 'non-person', her determination and spirit of struggle remained with her until her death in October 1979. For those who knew 'Auntie Mary', that spirit will remain forever.
These six women - Ray Alexander, Elizabeth Mafekeng, Frances Baard, Mabel Balfbur, Liz Abrahams and Mary Moodley - typify the militant spirit of the food and canning workers during the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Deeply committed women, they sacrificed a great deal to devote their lives to the struggle of the workers and people of South Africa as a whole. Yet they were by no means alone in this struggle. They always had the strength of the workers behind them, and many other leaders came to the fore to assist them or replace them when they were banned. We must not overlook the contributions made by other women like Christina Matthews, Dolores Telling (FCWU, PE) and Stella Damons (FCWU, PE), all of whom played an equally important role in the struggle.
When Viola Hashe was elected Secretary General of the South African Clothing Workers Union (SACWU) in March 1956 she became the first women leader of an all male union in South Africa.
This union is one of the oldest African trade unions in the country, founded in 1928 by Gana Makabeni. When large numbers of African women began to enter the garment industry, 'Solly' Sachs of the Garment Workers Union organised them into a separate union for African women only, the GWU of African Women. This was done because in terms of the IC Act, 'pass-bearing natives' could not be registered as 'employees' and African women were not yet obliged to carry passes.
Born in 1926, in Gabashane, Viola Hashe was a teacher by profession. At one time she was Assistant Secretary of the Chemical Workers Union and the Dairy Workers Union, but from 1956 on, she worked with SACWU. She began as a typist in the office, then became private secretary to the late Gana Makabeni, and after his death in 1955 she succeeded him as Secretary General.
In 1953 and 1954, Viola Hashe served on the Transvaal Provincial Executive of the ANC, and became the first woman regional chairperson of the West Rand region of Congress. In 1956, she was the first woman to be threatened with deportation under Section 29 of the Urban Areas Act. As in the case of Elizabeth Mafekeng a few years later, no reasons were given for the notice except a vague reference to Viola 'not being good' for the township in which she lived. However, with the help of expert counsel in Mrs Shulamith Muller, the Town Council was forced to back down barely seven hours before the order was to take effect.
This was a fortunate turn of events for the people of South Africa who would otherwise have been robbed of a distinguished and fearless leader. In her capacity as Secretary General of the SACWU, 'she displayed exceptional qualities as a leader and served the union very well'. An equally well-respected leader in SACTU, she was a member of the Management Committee from 1956 onwards, and in 1960 became Vice-President of SACTU. An interesting sideline to the story of Viola's election to the Vice-Presidency is relevant to this chapter. It was actually Lucy Mvubelo who made history in the South African trade union movement as the first woman Vice-President of SACTU. She was elected at the Inaugural Conference of March 1955 but by 1959 had been seduced into the SATUC-1`017ATUSA camp and betrayed the principles of non-racial trade unionism on which SACTU was founded (see Chapter 11). Viola Hashe, on the other hand, resisted co-optation by the reformist elements and became one of SACTU's most dynamic leaders.
Viola was elected to represent SACTU at various Wage Board Hearings, public meetings and in 1959 to the ILO Conference in Geneva. At SACTU's important 1959 Conference in Durban, she was a main speaker on 'Passes for Women'.
Presiding over the SACTU Annual Conference in October 1960 after the State of Emergency had been lifted, Viola summed up SACTU's attitude to the increasing attacks on the organisation and its members. 'We will not budge an inch. We will not be divided. The interests of the workers are one.' Viola Hashe continued to carry out her work in the interests of all workers until the inevitable retribution of the state was directed against her. In 1963, she was banned and restricted to Roodepoort where she lived until her recent and untimely death in 1977.
Secretary of the Toy Workers Union and an active leader of the SAR & HWU alongside her husband, Lawrence, Rita was banned from trade union activity in 1964. In 1969, she was charged under the Terrorism Act, acquitted and re-arrested along with 21 others. Rita is one of the countless detainees who has given evidence of torture while under interrogation. Police worked in shifts, questioning her day and night, in the course of which a White policeman picked her up by the hair and dropped her on to a gas pipe. When she screamed in pain the police merely closed the windows. In 1976, Rita was once again detained and it was during this time that Lawrence was murdered in detention. The state continued its brutal attack on these courageous trade unionists by barring Rita from attending her own husband's funeral.
From 1956 to 1963, Phyllis Altman was the only full-time paid employee of SACTU. As Assistant General Secretary, she played a valuable and indispensable role in the organisation during those years. Phyllis' childhood and education were similar to that of many White South Africans. At high school the only time students were given a chance to contemplate the plight of Africans was on Thursdays, when the girls were required to 'sew for the poor Blacks'. After completing university, Phyllis became a primary school teacher and then later worked for the Springbok Legion, an anti-fascist organisation for exservicemen formed during the Second World War. In this work she came face to face with the disastrous effects of the Apartheid system on African men, bitter from their treatment on release from the armed forces. She joined SACTU in 1956, initially to do part-time office work. Soon, however, she became very much involved in every part of SACTU work emanating from Head Office. In her own words, she became the 'international Department', always sending out information to other trade union bodies throughout the world, fostering international working class solidarity. In 1957, Phyllis represented SACTU at the Fourth Congress of the WFTU and made first-hand contact with representatives from other trade union bodies. It is largely due to the efforts of Phyllis in sending SACTU publications and primary materials to libraries and trade unions overseas that it is possible to write this book today. In order to prevent the Special Branch from confiscating all copies of SACTU materials, she would periodically send them out of the country to be kept on record elsewhere. Much of the material used in writing this book has been gathered from these sources safely kept outside the borders of Apartheid.
Phyllis contributed to SACTU in yet another way. A novelist herself, she always appreciated the cultural aspect of the struggle for liberation and injected her enthusiasm into SACTU activities, whether by organising a '£1-a-Day play' for one of the conferences or merely encouraging African workers to sing freedom songs at social gatherings. Phyllis and other comrades working out of Head Office did a commendable job in coordinating the various strands of SACTU work in Johannesburg until she too was banned from trade union activity in September 1963. Though she continued to assist the organisation, it became virtually impossible and Phyllis Altman left South Africa in 1964 believing she could contribute more from abroad.
Though her origins were not working class, Phyllis joined the struggle of African workers and always felt privileged that as a White woman she was accepted into SACTU so completely. Like Ray Alexander, this was because Phyllis always elevated the emancipation of Black workers in South Africa above all else.
At this point, mention should be made of other progressive White women trade unionists who contributed much to the South African trade union movement, and who, like Ray Alexander, were banned either before SACTU was formed or shortly after. Nancy Dick had been Secretary of the Cape Town TWIU branch when she was banned in 1954. Bettie du Toit was elected to the National Executive Committee of the SAT& LC in 1949, and had been active in organising sweet workers, textile workers and was Secretary of the Laundry Workers Union in the Cape before her banning in 1953. Becky Lan was elected to replace Ray Alexander and although banned in 1954 herself, she was not ordered to resign from her Union until 1956. In her letter of farewell to the Union, Becky said.
(The Minister of Justice) can remove leader after leader, but for every leader removed, new leaders will arise! He will still have to face the mass of the workers in the factories and homes. Men and women who will speak with one voice, who will be victorious in their struggle for their aspirations expressed in the Freedom Charter.
As we have illustrated, new leaders did arise and many of these had their origins in the African working class. The militancy of these women in the South African context is unique in comparison with women's struggles elsewhere. Their oppression spans race, class and sex and hence their struggle is against a greater menace than women face elsewhere, that is, the Apartheid system of exploitation. Like the men who struggle alongside them, they were silenced in various ways by the ruthless policies of the regime. This did not, however, prevent the women from contributing to the struggle for the emancipation of the workers and the people of South Africa. They have continued to take the lead in resistance campaigns inside South Africa, for example, organising the women of Crossroads squatter camp most recently, and in exile many women have joined the ANC military wing to carry the struggle forward.
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.